Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Rough Lesson on Electrolytes

Recently, G John Mullen had me on the Swimming Science Podcast.  I thought it went well, but during the recording I was forced to admit that my performance at Sectionals in early March was a big let-down.  I felt "off" all weekend and I couldn't really explain it.  I hadn't felt bad like that since switching to the LCHF diet, and with the way my training had been since December I was expecting to rock both breaststroke events.

After the meet I went to the doctor to chat about what might be wrong.  I was weak, a little achy, but nothing too strange... both of my kids had been sick so I thought I might just be fighting something... but then I started piecing together some clues that made me start down a new rabbit hole on the google.

I had been getting a little light-headed when getting up from my chair, which isn't that odd since my blood pressure is naturally so low, but it was something I remembered being frequent when I first started the new diet and was running a lot that I hadn't really experienced in a while.   My leg cramps had also returned with a vengeance over the last few weeks... I should have seen all of the signs that I wasn't paying enough attention to electrolytes, but I had been busy enough with work that I just didn't take the time to think it through.

The other symptoms were new.  At the meet I had been joking with a few people that I must have added all of my muscle in my legs because my TYR AP-12 was extra tight, which is strange because it is a pretty worn suit.  My jeans also felt tight.  Also, I have always twitched while falling asleep, but recently it had gotten out of control-- it was lasting all night and was at the point where my wife was making me sleep on the couch.

My dreams were awesome but I can understand why she wanted it to stop.

By the time I got to the doctor the next week I had noticed that my ankles were swollen enough that you might have guessed I was pregnant.

It took like 4 hours to get my tech suit on.

Here's the list:

  • Leg cramps at night had returned to the level they were when I first started the diet.
  • Lightheaded when I got out of the chair.
  • Twitching was worse and lasted through the night.
  • Legs, particularly ankles, were swollen.
  • Weak, with aches.
Well, here's what it boils down to:
  • I left my normal diet routine.  I had to travel during the week and was left to eat at restaurants, leaving my normal routine along with electrolyte supplements out of the picture.  The normal foods I eat that make me feel great were not available.  Bad idea for meet week.  The LCHF diet is kind of like a diuretic, as without the abundant glucose bonding to water, we don't retain as much.  We have to replace electrolytes more frequently.  
  • I experimented with baking soda supplementation.  There is a lot of recent research showing that it might actually be legit.

As far as the routine is concerned, I just wasn't smart enough to think ahead and plan for my abnormal week.  My bad.  The baking soda though, had never been anything but good in the past. If the idea is to ward off the acidity that interferes with muscle fiber contraction at the end of a race, lowering your pH at race time might be a pretty good bio-hack. I had been reading up quite a bit on it, and I think that they need to add an asterisk to the research.  I think the diuretic effect of this diet makes me need to be a little more cautious with the sodium bicarbonate than the average racer.

As I was looking up symptoms of electrolyte issues, I discovered that all of the stuff on my list could be attributed to low potassium.  I have always monitored this pretty closely and had become a little lax, sure.  But, then I stumbled upon a post on reddit that implied that baking soda supplementation can cause hypokalemia (low potassium) by itself.  This, I believe, is why my symptoms were so much more pronounced than ever before.  I had already been on the edge of a problem, and the bicarb opened the floodgates.

This might seem like a pretty involved excuse for not swimming fast, but that is not my intention.  (As a coach I have heard some pretty elaborate excuses as I am sure you can imagine.)  It is more of a cautionary tale.  Self-experimentation means you might have to become a little bit of a detective.  My doctor didn't know what to tell me.  I had to research it and figure out why I didn't seem to have ankle bones anymore and why I had become a Mexican jumping bean at night.  I just hope this tale of electrolytes gone bad helps anyone experimenting with keto to watch out for issues that need to be addressed!

Once I realized what was going on I added some potassium rich foods back into my diet, like spinach and avocado.  I took a few extra of the 99mg potassium gluconate supplements I normally use, and I started using nuun tablets a little more frequently.  Of course, I also did not touch the baking soda.  By the end of the week my ankles looked human, and I hit a 2:07 200 breast in a time trial just to make myself feel better and redeem the lousy 2:09 I did the week before.  All is good now and I am back to training after a short break.  

How did your season ending meet go?


  1. Just over a month into keto. The university season ended so I thought I'd give it a go. Swimming about 3 times a week of low volume maintenance(3.5-4km) and in the gym about 5 times a week.

    Went as I've read. Initially felt like shit (glycogen depleted feeling). Then started swimming fast. Like really fast for the amount of training I've done. Kick a seasons best 50. All season my kick has been getting worse! a month of keto and weights and I drop at 2 seconds in a fifty. Also hitting some other decent sprint times in practices.

    Notes: many writters such as Tim Noakes mentioned they lost their hunger. I haven't at all, even though I'm not doing much volume. Probably due to weights?

    I have noticed though that my hunger doesn't get linked to fatigue like feelings of low blood sugar though. I never feel like a kid forced to go on a long hike anymore! I can work hours and exercise with this hunger and not feel tired.

    Plan on maintaining this through the summer (Not drinking a ton of beer is my only falling point) and giving it a go when the college season ramps up and start hitting larger volume loads.

    Just wanted to thank you for getting me started.

  2. “How did your season ending meet go?”

    This is wave rider from swimswam. First of all you have been a big inspiration to me being a usrpt swimmer and someone who is into nutrition like you are. I’ve been training usrpt for 8 months and my times were right on my pace for 100 free fly and breast. It hasn’t been 2 years since I threw up blood. I’ve been on a journey for good health ever since and I am happy to come across your blog because you have given me motivation.

    I am 27 years old 6 feet 0 inches tall and 151 pounds. I never swam year round because I wanted to play other sports, football and basketball. I just swam summer league. Luckily I had some great coaches growing up at my neighborhood pool. My season ending meet was the Colonies zone scy masters Championship. My best events were probably 50 breast and fly. I went 27.99 and 23.65. My 100 breast was 1:04.27 and my fly was 56.69. Clearly awful based off of my 50 times but I can’t complain because those were right on my usrpt pace almost on the dot. I just need to get faster. Even though it should have been faser that was literally my first 100 yard breast and fly ever. Every time I swam 100 breast/fly it was in meters and it was like maybe 5 times. I am not a power swimmer obviously at 151 pounds but I am finesse as hell. In the hurdler stretch I can touch my forehead to the floor.

    I thank god for your blog because it gives me motivation to get where I want to go and that’s a 49 100 fly, 56 100 breast, and sub 45.7 100 free. Thank you Shawn for giving me inspiration.